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Irish Folklore

[Fairies and the legend of the shamrock]
1. The fairies

1.1 Origins – roots:
As the origins of the Irish fairies go far back to ancient times, it is only appropriate to refer to them using the Gaelic language. The singular ‘fairy’ means sidheóg, which is pronounced ‘sheehogue’. Fairies or fairy people, how they often get called, are daoine sidhe (‘deenee shee’). Whereas the ‘world’ they live in is known as ‘The Otherworld’. The native language of Ireland has many more names for them. All of them are forms of the word Shia or Shee which is translatable as ‘spirit’.
Using English it is unusual to name them directly, instead of ‘fairy’ many people prefer to use euphemisms such as
The Good People
The Gentry
The Good Neighbours
The (Fair) Folk

The Little People
This avoidance of the word takes place in order to please those sensitive creatures. It also is supposed to prevent misfortune for the family and cattle. Because it is believed that if humans describe them as kind they are more likely to be so.
It almost seems as if every family has their own definition of what exactly fairies are and where they come from. The majority of the legends have their roots in Munster, the southern counties of Leinster and in county Galway which is situated in the Province of Connaught.

However, these three are the most popular believes:
Referring to the peasantry, Irish fairies are ‘fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost.’
In the book of Armagh, one can find this quote: ‘Fairies are the Gods of the earth.’
The Irish antiquarians provide another theory on this issue.
They are convinced that fairies developed from the “Tuatha De Danãn”. These were Gods and supernatural beings, which were worshipped in old Ireland. As they knowledge about the Danãn got lost throughout the ages, it is impossible to give a clear definition of about their history and purpose.
Nevertheless, it is for a fact, that many names of fairy chiefs are similar to the names of old Danãn heroes. Further more, we find that many of the fairies’ gathering places are graves of the Danãn.
Additionally we find that writers and poets in all centuries tend to allude to fairies as “the Gods of the earth”. Like Gods they were basically used to substantiate mysterious phenomena of nature. Taking a look at Ireland’s scenery in the misty autumn and winter days or even on a summer day, it gets clear why the inhabitants always felt surrounded by some kind of magic.
It is remarkable to notice that these mystic beings have a higher status as spirits or even Gods than one would admit.
Even though the Irish fairies hardly differ from the English and Scottish supernatural beings, they were actually brought to the island by the Danes.
1.2 General information about Irish fairies
Fairies are associated having a close bond with nature. So the places where they are said to live are usually untouched and natural areas. This can be a so-called fairy hill, a fairy ring, a fairy rath (a stone circle as they appear all over the country) but also trees or bushes (hawthorn or thorn bush), or perhaps a lake or a forest.
Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, making love, and playing the most beautiful music.
There are many different kinds of fairies, but in general they are pretty shy creatures.
As long as they are left in peace and no human dares to step on their home or they have an important message for someone, they stay invisible.
However there are occasions where the number of fairy sightings by mortals increase dramatically. Specifically at times of dusk and dawn, the Gaelic Otherworld is believed to be closer than usual.
Further more, there are special feast days throughout the year, which were already celebrated by the Celts.

All in all there are four great festivals:
May Eve or Beltane
Midsummer Eve
November Eve
1.2.1 The four feast days

May Eve or Beltane
This festival takes place on the night of the 30th of April to the 1st of May. The Celts celebrated it as it falls between the solar festivals. For them, it marked the beginning of summer. In German speaking regions, May Eve is better known as ‘Walpurgis Night’. It praises the height of spring and the blossom of life and nature. Further more it is the festival of flowers, fertility, sensuality, and delight. Every seventh year on May Eve, the fairies gather and fight but they don’t really hurt each other as the Irish fairies are immortal.

Midsummer Eve
In Ireland Midsummer Eve is celebrated on the night of the 23rd of June. There is a great distinction between the costumes on this feast day in Europe and in The USA. The European Midsummer relates more to the ancient pagan culture of the Celts than in the US – version of the festival. On the green island it is also renown as St. John’s Eve or Bonfire night.
Midsummer marks the summer solstice – the longest day and the shortest night of the year. There a dozens of different costumes, usually involving bonfires which are light on hill tops.
Nevertheless Midsummer is also said to be the time of the fairies, fortune tellers, old magic and new love. Sometimes the male fairies are tempted to steal away the most beautiful mortal girls to make them their brides.

Samhain means ‘November’ in the Gaelic language. The actual Samhain celebrations take place on the 1st of November. In the Gaelic culture, it marks the end of the harvest season, but its origins go back to the Celts. For them, the 1st of November was the beginning of a new year. The Christian calendar took over the date and so the festival tradition continued on as ‘All Souls’ Day’. Many important battles and gatherings in Irish literature and folklore take place on this day as well.

November Eve
This is the night of the 30th of November which is reckoned as the first night of winter in the Gaelic cycle of the year. It is a night of dark magic as all spells worked in this night are performed in the name of the devil. The souls of the Dead are supposed to arise on November Eve and have the power over all things. People in Ireland try their best avoiding having to leave their houses, as the Dead hold a festival with the fairies, where they drink and dance till sunrise.
1.3 The different kinds of fairies
Irish fairies can be roughly divided into two different groups: The Trooping or Sociable fairies and the Solitary fairies. In fact, most of the magic creatures belong to the second group.
1.3.1. The Trooping/Sociable fairies
This group of fairies is made up by the fairy aristocracy, the presiding residence of the Otherworld. The name trooping fairies goes back to their habit of travelling in long processions as they delight in company. Even though these fairies are generally of a peaceful nature, none of them (like all Irish fairies) can be marked as truly good or evil.

But they are said to be very beautiful, with long yellow hair and perfect delicate forms. Usually they keep themselves away from the mortal life, yet they have the power to influence and affect all human beings. The following paragraphs provide information about the two most popular sociable fairies:
The Sheoques
The Merrows The Sheoques
Sheoque comes from the Gaelic word sidheog which means 'little fairy'. This name refers to their small size.
These supernatural beings normally choose thorn bushes and raths as their residence.
Ireland has a great tradition of music and beautiful tunes and so have these fairies. Very often they gather and play their pleasant songs on pint – sized flutes and lutes. It is also believed that many of the remarkable Irish traditional music are stolen tunes from this little folk. Therefore it is regarded as dangerous to sing songs like ‘The Pretty Girl milking the Cow’ near a fairy rath, for they can get very jealous hearing their own marvellous tune sang by a mortal.
Despite of dancing and making music the Sheoques have another avocation, which turns out to be a pretty dark chapter of the relationship between fairies and humans. It might sound strange, at first place, but they tend to steal Irish babies or little children away from their parents, leaving changelings in their place. Unfortunately those changelings are not capable to survive longer than three years.
But changeling is not changeling. These fairies are very tricky, and there are various kinds of changelings. If confronted with a fairy changeling, one might face an actual fairy offspring or a senile fairy who is disguised as a child or even a ‘stock’, which is an inanimate object, such as a piece of wood, which takes on the appearance of a child through fairy magic
There are a few different explanations and causes for this habit.
Firstly, giving birth to a fairy child is, as it is for humans, far from being a pleasant thing for the female. The death rate amongst fairy children during birth is relatively high, compared to mortal standards. But even those who survive are very often deformed and ugly creatures. As the Sheoques are stunningly beautiful they have no motherly feelings for their offspring and wish to get rid of them. So they head over to villages and look for pretty and healthy newborns to swap them with their babies.
Another reason for this behaviour is that fairies in general, happen to have different social rules and moral codes. They simply cannot understand that by doing this they are harming the parents of a child. It can be said that Sheoques have developed a fondness of humans; they even try to keep humans as loved pets, as they are so amused by us.
There can also be adult changelings. These fairy doubles will exactly resemble the person taken but will have a sour disposition. The double will be cold and aloof and take no interest in friends or family.
Changelings display other characteristics, usually physical deformities, among which a crooked back or lame hand are common.
In spite of that the fairy changeling is very likely to display an aptitude for music. As it grows older, it may take up an instrument such as the fiddle or the Irish pipes. It will show great skills on this instruments, playing old Irish tunes which people have long forgotten.
Changelings may be driven from a house. When this is achieved, the human child or adult will invariably be returned unharmed. Merrows and Silkies
Once again the actual word ‘merrow’ roots in the Irish language. It is made up of the two Gaelic words ‘sea’ and ‘maid’. This expression only refers to the female of the species, who are supposed to be extremely beautiful and graceful. All in all their body features are very similar to human once except for their feet which are flatter than those of a mortal and their hands, which have a thin webbing connecting all five fingers. Some also have a fishtail instead of a pair of feet. Merrows wear a red cap made of feather which enables them to travel around through all oceans. Very often male mortals, particularly fishermen fall in deep love with them, as there singing is regarded as irresistible. Mermaids enjoy teasing men with their beauty, but if one dares to come to close, they dive away in the sea. Stormy weather and huge waves are often caused by them, as to them watching ships being destroyed is a delightful diversion. In case a man manages to get hold of a Merrows red cap, he will posses the power over her. Many men, in particular fishermen have married a Merrow. To keep her on the land they have to hide the cap. As soon as she finds the cap, the memories of her former life come back and she will leave her husband and children, without ever returning.
Some coastal families still claim their decent from such marriages, like the O'Flaherty and O'Sullivan families of Kerry and the McNamaras of Clare.
In contrast to their wives the mermen are quite ugly, but bringers of luck. Their skin is green, so are the hair and the teeth. With pig eyes they spend most of their time sitting on a rock naked, scanning the sea for cases of brandy lost from wrecked ships.
The Silkies prefer the waters and costs in northern regions of Ireland. They are creatures who are seals by day, but change into men and human at night time. At night, in their mortal form, they are pretty beings, whose features are dark hair and dark eyes. In contrary to the Merrows the Silkies emerge from the sea after sunset. Men and women leave their seals skins on the shore. But only the female have to stay when a human men finds their skin. Like the related Merrows they are forced to obey the ones who posses their skins. Nevertheless they still have a close bond with the ocean. At night they like to wander off to the sea cliffs and sing one of the songs of their ancestors. When they manage to find their seal skin again they return to the sea. But they will also never forget their mortal life and pay regular visits to their family.

1.3.2 The Solitary fairies
Unlike the sociable fairies, the solitary fairies prefer to live on their own. So they do their best do avoid large gatherings and meetings. Even though these fairies are seen as the peasantry of the supernatural beings, they are far more familiar and popular to humans, as they show far more interest in mortal affairs.

Some examples for these fairies are:
The Leprechaun
The Pooka
The Banshee
The Leanhaun Shee
The Dullahan
The Cluricaun
The Red Man

The Gonconer
As there are so many of the solitary fairies, I’m only going to give more detailed information on three of them.

The Leanhaun Shee
She is understood to be a fairy mistress who seeks the love of mortal men. If a lover refuses she becomes his slave. But in fact, they hardly ever refuse this beautiful fairy woman. It is said that all great poets and musicians loved her, and that is why most of them died young.

The Dullahan
The Dullahan is regarded as a death omen. He is headless and carries his head in his hand. Around midnight on certain Irish festivals or feast days, this wild and black-robed horseman may be observed riding a dark and snorting steed across the countryside.

The Cluricaun
This fairy is renown to be quite troublesome during night time. Very often it robs wine cellars, therefore it is usually drunk. The Cluricaun has fun riding sheep and shepherd dogs. They are usually found panting and covered in mud on the next morning.
The Red Man
He is said to be responsible for horrible nightmares.

The Conconer
This fairy is never seen without his beloved pipe. He is renown as womaniser. Therefore he sometimes appears making love to shepherdesses and milkmaid. The Leprechaun
These little bearded creatures, which are seldom found sober, are regarded as Ireland’s national fairies since the touristic sector has used their pictures for advertisings.
It seems as if the Leprechauns are the only fairies who actually work. They are the shoemakers of the Otherworld. The trooping fairies are so fond of dancing that their shoes wear out really quickly. So it is of great importance for them to keep contact with a Leprechaun. The word Leprechaun, of course, goes back to this occupation. All Leprechauns wear identical red coats with seven buttons in each row and a hat with a feather sticking out of it. Additionally they carry two leather pouches. In one there is a silver shilling, a magical coin that returns to the purse each time it is paid out. In the other he carries a gold coin which he uses to try and bribe his way out of difficult situations. This coin usually turns to leaves or ashes once the leprechaun has parted with it.
For many people they are a symbol of luck and wealth. A long time ago, after the invading Danes left Ireland, these clever creatures, appointed themselves to guardians of the Danish treasures. To ensure, that nobody would steal the ancient riches, the Leprechauns buried it in pots. But the fairy code tells them, to leave all the gold coins under their possession to a mortal who is able to catch them. Unfortunately, Leprechauns tend to be really fast and tricky. If one manages to get hold of one, he/she shall never take his/her eyes off him. However, this turns out to be impossible, for they can vanish in an instant.
The Leprechaun will promise great wealth if allowed to go free. The Pooka
It is not clear where the name of this fairy comes from. Some believe that it is of Scandinavian origin; others are convinced that the word relates to the Irish word ‘poc’. This either describes a male goat or a ‘blow from a cudgel’.
No fairy is more feared on the green island than the Pooka. This is probably because it only shows up after midnight causing mischief amongst the inhabitants of the countryside. The Pooka usually appears in the shape of a dark horse with horrifying yellow eyes. This creature loves to gallop around, damaging farms, tearing down fences and scattering the livestock of remote farms.
The Pooka can change forms to a goblin that demands a share of the harvest crop. Some country folks will leave a small portion or tribute of their crop for the Pooka to take, and hopefully leave them alone. In Waterford and Wexford, it appears as an eagle with a massive wingspan; and in Roscommon, as a black goat with curling horns.
Just a mere sight of it may prevent hens laying their eggs or cows giving milk. Travellers who are still on the road late at night are endangered to get thrown into muddy ditches by him.
Further more, the Pooka is said to have the power of human speech, which he uses to call out the name of the one he wants to take upon its nightly dashes. If one dares to refuse, the Pooka will get tremendously angry and won’t hesitate to destroy the property of a whole family.
But the temper of this creature varies from area to area. Sometimes it even can be helpful, for instance when announcing prophecies or warnings.
In the county of Fermanagh the Pooka played a very important role for the people. At least once a year, they gathered on certain points and awaited the speech of a wise, black horse.
It is said that there only has been one man, who managed to ride the Pooka. This man was Brian Boru and he was the High King of Ireland. So, he got the fairy to promise him two things.
Firstly, the he would stop destroying the property of Christians and secondly that he would never attack an Irishman again, except the drunken and evil ones. Even though it accepted this term, it seems as if the Pooka has forgotten them over the years, because he often attacks faithful and sober travellers. The Banshee
There are different ways to translate this name. Some would refer to it as ‘woman of the sidhe’ or ‘washing woman’ whereas others believe that it simply means ‘fairy woman’. Nevertheless everybody is talking about the same beautiful woman, who can appear in three different forms: As a young woman, a stately matron or a raddled old hag. These represent the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death, There is no harm or evil in her mere presence, unless she is seen in the act of crying; but this is a fatal sign. The wail of a banshee pierces the night, and always announces a mortal's death. She is mourning and forewarning those only of the best families in Ireland, who have the most ancient Celtic lineages. According to this tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, the O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list. When a member of the beloved race is dying, she paces the dark hills about his house. Each banshee has her own mortal family. Out of love she even follows the old families across the ocean to distant lands. Her wails can be heard in America and England, wherever the true Irish have settled.
She usually wears either a grey, hooded cloak or a winding sheet. The Banshee can also appear as a washer woman, washing the blood stained clothes of a dying person. There are records of several human banshees attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.
2. Other Irish creatures
2.1 Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhail)
Finn McCool, who was an Irish Giant, lived on the coast of county Antrim. One day when the Scottish Giant Fingal began to shout insults and abuses at him across the channel. In anger Finn lifted a clod of earth and threw it at the giant as a challenge, but the earth landed in the sea.
Fingal retaliated with a rock thrown back at Finn and shouted that Finn was lucky that he wasn't a strong swimmer or he would have made sure he could never fight again.
Finn was enraged and began lifting huge clumps of earth from the shore, throwing them so as to make a pathway for the Scottish giant to come and face him. However by the time he finished making the crossing he had not slept for a week and so instead devised a plan to fool the Scot.
Finn disguised himself as a baby in a cot and when his adversary came to face him, Finn's wife told the Giant that Finn was away. She showed him his son sleeping in the cradle. The Scottish giant became apprehensive, for if the son was so huge, what size would the father be?
In his haste to escape Fingal sped back along the causeway Finn had built, tearing it up as he went. Therefore, these stones and clumps of earth, which kind of connect Ireland and Scotland, are called The Giants Causeway.

The Giants Causeway
Since the 18th century The Giants Causeway has often been described as 'The Eighth Wonder of the World'.
The area consists of an estimated 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, which were formed during a volcano eruption 60 million years ago.
Strangely the Causeway is thought to have lain undiscovered by the outside world until a visit in 1692 from the Bishop of Derry (Londonderry). The Bishop alerted authorities in Dublin, who then notified specialists in London. Many papers were produced and many theories on how it had been formed were put forward.

Travelling to Ireland, one will find that every bed and breakfast and every castle has its own ghostly tale. Some are tales of ancient ghosts, some are more modern spirits. The stories probably grew out of a rich mixture of Celtic, Roman and Christian mythology.
Ghosts, or as they are called in Irish live between this life and the next. They are held there by some affection, some duty unfulfilled, or anger against the living.
Those who suffer a sudden death, are more likely to become haunting Ghosts. They go about moving the furniture, and in every way trying to attract attention.
The souls of the dead sometimes take the shapes of animals.
House ghosts can be found between the walls, in the attic or in the cellar, in the shed, or sometimes even in a large tree beside the house. They are not particularly intelligent, and remain friendly as long as they are treated well. Even though they are friendly, ghosts love annoying the people who they live with. In particular they like to tease lazy people by pulling the blankets off their beds and sending icy drafts through the room. They also delight in knocking over milk pails and keeping people awake by constantly tapping on the walls. When made very angry, they tend to show their anger by becoming violent... Their noisemaking becomes unbearable for the inhabitants. Sometimes they even throw stones, the cattle become sick, or drought cold weather and continuous storms occurs.

3 The Legend of the Shamrock
‘There's a dear little plant that grows in our isle, 'Twas Saint Patrick himself, sure, that set it; And the sun of his labor with pleasure did smile, And with dew from his eye often wet it. It grows through the bog, through the brake, through the mireland And they call it the dear little Shamrock of Ireland ‘
(After an old Irish blessing)

3. The history
The word shamrock goes back to the Irish word seamròg (pronounced: ‘Seamroy’), which means ‘little clover’. It is said that for the ancient Druids, the shamrock was a sacred plant. The Druids believed the shamrock had the power to avert evil spirits. Some people are convinced that the shamrock still has mystical, even prophetic, powers. There are many superstitions about this very special plant in Irish folklore. For instance that the leaves of shamrocks turn upright whenever a storm is about to come.
Ancient Irish Celts also revered the shamrock because it has three leaves, and they considered "three" to be a sacred number. In general, the mythology of numbers was very important to them. They believed that many numbers held magic powers.
The three leaves shaped like hearts were associated with the Triple Goddess of Celtic mythology, otherwise known as the "Three Morgans". The Triple Goddess represented the Triple Mothers, the hearts of the ancient Celtic tribes.
The first written reference to the Shamrock dates back to the year 1571. It was used as an emblem by the Irish Volunteers '98 and The Act of Union. , Later on the shamrock developed to a symbol of rebellion against the oppression of the Crown. Therefore, the Queen made it a capital crime to wear the shamrock on military uniforms, punishable by death.
Throughout the 19th century, the shamrock was used as a decorative symbol on everything Irish from churches and other public buildings, to clothing and household furniture. It wasn't long before anything connected with Ireland at all displayed shamrocks in some way. So the shamrock legend had taken on new meaning to Irish people. It went beyond being a spiritual symbol and became a source of national pride.
3.2 The Shamrock and holy Trinity
‘Long ago, when Ireland was the land of Druids, there was a great Bishop, Patrick by name, who came to teach the word of God throughout the country. This saint, for he was indeed a saint, was well loved everywhere he went. One day, however, a group of his followers came to him and admitted that it was difficult for them to believe in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Saint Patrick reflected a moment and then, stooping down, he plucked a leaf from the shamrock and held it before them, bidding them to behold the living example of the "Three-in-One." The simple beauty of this explanation convinced these sceptics, and from that day, the shamrock has been revered throughout Ireland.’
The shamrock is a symbol of the Trinity and the Cross for most Irish-Catholics. This is due to the most famous shamrock legend, starring St. Patrick. The story basically says that he used the shamrock to help the pagan Druid High Priests and their followers understand the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - All in One Almighty God. According to Irish folklore, this effective demonstration secured the approval of the Druid High Priests of St. Patrick's missionary work in Ireland, and even led many of them to convert to Christianity and become Bishops themselves. The shamrock legend also includes the story that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. The legend goes on to say that St. Patrick filled the Emerald Isle with lush shamrock fields to keep the snakes from returning. Furthermore, people say that shamrocks would grow wherever St. Patrick had preached.
4. Sources


Horrible histories Ireland – Terry Deary
A field guide to Irish fairies – Bob Curran
8.c Sarai Lenzberger English
Spezialgebiet (mündliche Matura)
Irish Fairies and the Legend of the Shamrock:
Irish fairies:
Origins/Roots, general information about Irish fairies, the four feast days ( where fairy sightings increase dramatically),
the different kinds of fairies:
Trooping/Sociable fairies (The Sheoques, The Merrows, the silkies)
Solitary fairies (The Leprechaun, The Pooka,
The Banshee, The Leanhaun Shee , The Dullahan, The Cluricaun, The Red Man , The Gonconer)
Other Irish creatures:giants and ghosts (Finn McCool, The Giant`s Causeway, Ghosts)
The Legend of The Shamrock:
history, the shamrock and holy trinity (4787 Wörter)
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